The Survivor

He's weathered a coup, a strike, and a recession. How many lives does Hugo Chavez have?

| Mon Jun. 21, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

The presidency of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has already survived a 2002 military coup attempt that lasted only two days, a general strike that temporarily shut down the country's oil industry, and an economic recession that strengthened the divide between rich and poor. Chavez is now making his case to remain president to voters, who can replace the populist former army paratrooper in an Aug. 15 recall election.

Always given to fiery rhetoric, Chavez earlier this week tried to cast the recall as a battle between himself and the U.S. government:

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"The fight is not between Chavez and the opposition. It's between Chavez and Bush. That's the choice."

"…The Bush administration was alone in the world when it endorsed the overthrow of my government in 2002. It is my hope that this time the Bush administration will respect our republican democracy."

However, as the Washington Post reports Friday, if Chavez loses the vote, it will owe more to his economic philosophy than to his relations with the U.S.

Last year, Chavez began a process of redirecting the revenue from his country's oil (Venezuela produces more oil than any nation outside the Middle East, and is one of America's top suppliers) into social programs aimed at the country's poor. The government plans to spend at least $1.7 billion in oil money this year on programs like subsidized food and free school tuition, and Chavez has moved another $2 billion in oil revenue into a social spending fund.

"Historically, petroleum income was distributed so that most of it went to the privileged elite," Chavez supporter Willian Lara told the Post. "Since Chavez became president, he has begun distributing petroleum income for economic development. The Venezuelan people are the owners of petroleum, so it is logical that the owners of the petroleum should get the benefit."

But some of the president's critics see these programs as attempts to buy loyalty in a nation where about two of every three people live in poverty. Much of Chavez's support has from poor voters, but he has been consistently unpopular with the wealthy, the business community, the military and the media since his first election in 1998.

Ramon Espinasa, a former chief economist for the state-run oil company, also argues Chavez could hurt the country's long-term revenue by running his social programs at the expense of investing enough in maintaining and modernizing the oil industry. He told the Post that despite the high level of current oil prices, the industry will not be able to meet its production goals or even keep up its current pace if Chavez keeps distributing money as he has.

Meanwhile, Chavez is campaigning hard to keep his job, warning the poor that his opposition would roll back his programs. Human Rights Watch reports Chavez is also working to stack the country's Supreme Court with his supporters. By expanding the court from 20 to 32 magistrates, Chavez would presumably have an advantage if the recall results become disputed. Opposition groups also criticized the wording of the recall referendum as being too confusing for voters, who will give a "yes" or "no" vote to the question:

``Do you agree with rendering ineffective the people's mandate given through legitimate democratic elections to the citizen Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for the current presidential period?''

If Chavez loses the Aug. 15 vote, he will still be eligible to run for president again in 2006. The Supreme Court has not announced whether he would be able to run in the election to replace himself, provided the opposition gets the 3.75 million votes need to oust him.

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